On Monday, President George W. Bush delivered a televised address in which he discussed immigration and responded to the organized movement in support of immigrant rights. During his speech, Bush outlined what he hopes to accomplish with his “comprehensive immigration reform” that he called a “middle ground” between those wishing to “round up” undocumented immigrants and those that support full amnesty for all undocumented immigrants in the country.
The first goal of the plan is to “secure” the United States borders by increasing the number of Border Patrol officers by 6,000 by the end of 2008, deploying 6,000 National Guard troops, expediting deportations, and increasing space in detention facilities. Bush also advocated the creation of a “temporary worker program” that would allow foreign workers a “legal path” to enter the country for “a limited period of time” in order to “meet the needs of our [the United States’] economy.” The President pledged to “hold employers accountable for the workers that they hire,” a process that would be facilitated by the creation of “tamper-proof” identification cards for immigrants. Bush proposed a new opportunity for immigrants already in the country to gain citizenship, outlining a scenario in which immigrants can pay a penalty, pay taxes, learn English, and work for a number of years at which point they can apply for citizenship although “approval would not be automatic.” As his last goal, Bush emphasized that immigrants must learn English. Not surprisingly, Bush completely ignored the situation in Mexico and the realities of Mexican immigration to the United States where poverty and the decimation of traditional economies brought on by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have forced many Mexican citizens to migrate to the United States.
During his speech, Bush declared that “the United States is not going to militarize the border,” yet the deployment of National Guard soldiers—even in a supporting capacity—is another step in a process that has been militarizing the border since the mid-1990s. Indeed, in Bush’s speech he touted the fact that since he has been President he has increased funding for border security by 66% and expanded the Border Patrol to its current total of 12,000 agents. Since the 1994 implementation of the Border Patrol’s Southwest Border Strategy, the United States-Mexico border has been a low-intensity conflict zone. The military has been involved in varying capacities for the past 16 years and the Border Patrol has received military training in the past, although it has never approached the level of military involvement being proposed. The plan also will require new detention centers, with private corporations such as Halliburton being contracted to run the detention centers at a cost of more than $200 million per year. Additionally, there is ongoing pressure to build a wall along the United States-Mexico border with estimates ranging from $851 million to more than $2 billion for its construction. Studies of the efficacy of militarizing the border via technology—cameras, vehicle barriers, and unmanned aerial vehicles—have proven to be incredibly costly and have had little success in preventing undocumented immigrants from entering the country. Moreover, militarization has not just meant the use of military force along the border, it has also meant the disruption of lives through massive deportations, the division of communities and families, and an overall “climate of fear” in immigrant communities—all of which are by-products of an immigration policy based on enforcement. Already, Mexico and El Salvador have voiced concerns about the proposal and its potential militarization of the border.
Despite the fact that the placement of National Guard soldiers on the United States-Mexico border should gain widespread opposition, the Democratic Party offered limited opposition to the plan. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said that he thought it was “a good idea” but that the cost must be a “federal responsibility”—only raising the question of who will pay for the troops. In his rebuttal to the President’s speech, Senator Dick Durbin said that the “Democrats are willing to any reasonable plan that will secure our borders, including the deployment of National Guard troops.” Democrats have also supported measures including expedited removal of immigrants caught entering the United States, increasing the number of detention facilities, and tamper-proof identification cards for immigrants. Democrats support the idea of a guest worker program as well and are doing so largely to appease their corporate supporters. Current proposals in the Senate largely incorporate the demands of the Essential Worker Coalition (EWIC), a coalition headed by the United States Chamber of Commerce and including 36 different trade and manufacturing associations that support the use of guest workers in agriculture, construction, meatpacking, hotels, restaurants, manufacturing, transportation, and other sectors of the economy as a means of providing cheap labor to corporations. Despite Democratic support, the proposals have been criticized for creating a “second class” of workers that would only be in the country for a limited period of time and would be limited in terms of being able to organize to improve their conditions as programs would prevent collective bargaining, the joining of unions, and leaving oppressive jobs (they could only leave if they had another job lined up). Many liberal columnists have also agreed with these core aspects of Bush’s plan, with the majority of liberals and Democrats offering an opposition much like what they offered to the Iraq War, suggesting that they can “manage” immigration better than the Republicans, but essentially pledging to do the same thing—just as Senator John Kerry pledged to be “stronger” in his administration of the occupation of Iraq.
Two of the current immigration reform proposals in the Senate, Hagel-Martinez and Kennedy-McCain, despite gaining the support of some immigrant groups and those involved in the struggle for immigrant rights, feature provisions that would incorporate aspects of President Bush’s plan. Under the Hagel-Martinez bill, undocumented immigrants living in the United States for more than five years could apply to be citizens only after six years, paying fines and back taxes, and learning English. Those in the country for more than two years but less than five could apply for guest worker status, but could do so only after exiting and re-entering the United States—with no guarantees that they would be allowed reentry. It also contains provisions that would put immigrants at risk if they used false documentation to obtain a job in the past and would dramatically increase the militarization of the border by adding some 15,000 new Border Patrol agents over the next six years and by giving the Department of Homeland Security the authority to make additional changes to border security as needed.
Similarly, the Kennedy-McCain proposal would offer undocumented immigrants already in the country the opportunity to become legal immigrants with a chance at residency and also institutes a new type of visa. The bill proposes the creation of 400,000 “H5-A” visas for “low-skilled workers,” despite the fact that the number of undocumented immigrants over the past years has averaged 850,000 per year. The bill also ties legal status to employment, requiring immigrants to leave the country if they are unemployed for 45 days with violators being subject to deportation. Immigrants could be given the status of “H5-B non-immigrants” which would allow them to work in the United States for six years as part of a guest worker program. At the end of the six-year period, immigrants would be allowed to petition the government for permanent residency, although during the six-year period immigrants could be deported after breaking the law two times.